Like many farmers, Rod Flaman spends a fair amount of time thinking while sitting in his combine. Recently, hemp harvest had just begun, and he wondered if it would be on the upslope or the downslope of the seesaw trajectory that defined his experiences with growing industrial hemp since it was legalized in Canada in 1998. He also questioned the business acumen of a farmer willing to travel several thousand miles to give away hard-learned lessons to potential competitors in an already over-saturated market. It didn’t make sense.
And yet here he was in Manhattan, Kansas, for the first of four meetings around the state devoted to reinventing an industry that had been virtually non-existent for 80 years.
“I realized that there are no secrets in the world,” he said. “The cat’s out of the bag.”
The meetings, sponsored by Kansas Farmers Union and Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, were a response to Senate Bill 263, which was signed into law by Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer in April, and went into effect on May 3. The bill enacted the Alternative Crop Research Act, allowing the Kansas Department of Agriculture to oversee the cultivation of industrial hemp.
From the start, developing the regulatory processes needed to carry out the act’s provisions were accelerated. Such processes normally take at least one year to complete, but staffers were given around seven months, or until the end of the year, said KDA Compliance Education Coordinator Dana Ladner.
Other meeting locations included Salina, Colby and Garden City.
Hemp, a variety of Cannabis sativa, a species that includes marijuana, has a venerable place in agriculture. It was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fiber for clothing around 8,000 B.C., and it’s used in building materials, biodegradable plastics, rope and textiles. Its high nutritional value make it a staple with health products being produced today.
Though industrial hemp was used extensively during World War II for making military uniforms, canvas and rope, its importance as an agricultural crop withered after the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which levied a tax on commercial production. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 made it illegal to grow the plant without a permit.
Since legalizing industrial hemp production in 1968, Canada has become the leader in the global health and food marketplace. Getting there, though, required a complete reinvention not only of the plant itself but the infrastructure needed for processing, Flaman said.
“The entire world forgot about hemp as a crop and how to use it,” he said.
It took two years to sell the first crop he grew because the market was so small and volatile. It didn’t help that he overproduced. “Which is what every farmer does,” he said.
Those first years were heady, with markets generally on the upswing. After working up to 110,000 acres of industrial hemp in 2015, though, the markets were saturated, and the following year crop testers didn’t contract for any hemp production. By the end of the year processors were short again. “It’s a see-saw situation,” Flaman said. “I think everyone thought the market would keep on growing and the rate of increase would go up, but the rate of consumption for hemp seed hasn’t gone the way I thought it would or the crop testers thought it would.”
Flaman mostly grows industrial hemp for the seeds using a midrange variety named X59. It provides a decent producing crop with yields varying between 500 to 1,200 pounds per acre, and grows to average height, which makes it easier on his equipment.
Even then, the length and toughness of the fibers pose challenges for combines. After all, he said, industrial hemp fibers are stronger than Kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests.
“Fires are the biggest problem with hemp because of the long stalks and fibers,” Flaman said. “Once they start wrapping, they’re a little like Velcro. As more gets pulled in, the tighter they wrap, and that increases heat. A fire almost took the combine out this year right after we started the harvest.”
Once fibers are wrapped around cylinder shafts, removing them can be time-intensive and backbreaking. Several years ago, he and an employee resorted to using hooked carpet knives to cut through the stalks. Afterward, the employee told him that he wouldn’t come back if Flaman continued to grow industrial hemp. “I looked at it differently,” he said. “That crop was worth a lot of money. Let’s do it again.”
Flaman solved the problem by using puck board, a virtually indestructible plastic material, to enclose the reel and to protect the final drives under the combine from the hemp wrapping. With the reel enclosed, the hemp crop is forced down onto the sunflower pans and only one foot of the crop is run through the combine instead of three. Now there’s very little tangling or wrapping, he said.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” he said, “but you can try anything.”
“We tend to think of 800 pounds per acre as a decent crop,” he said. “Two years ago, our hemp net clean production was 1,200 pounds an acre at a dollar a pound. For us that was fantastic. Today, with three inches of rain, I don’t know what to expect. It’s like any other crop, there are good years and bad years. It’s all over the map.”
There’s still a tremendous level of potential in growing industrial hemp, he said. According to a Colorado producer he met at a convention in Calgary several years ago, growing hemp for straw or fiber could gross about $100 per acre, growing hemp for seed production could gross about $1,000 per acre, and growing hemp for health purposes or components could gross as much as $25,000 per acre.
“Does that strike a chord with any of you?” he asked a packed room of farmers.
The cultivation, growth, research, transportation, processing or distribution of industrial hemp or industrial hemp seed will only be allowed with a license as part of a research program, Ladner said. The term is based on the 2014 Farm Bill which mandates that any state choosing to legalize industrial hemp must label its production as a research proposal. Under the act, industrial hemp is defined as all parts and varieties of the plant Cannabis sativa L. that contain a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of no more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis. Growers will have to purchase certified seed from another state, and before planting, all native or wild hemp must be eradicated to prevent cross-pollination.
The rules and regulations to acquire a license and otherwise carry out the provisions of the alternative crop research act will be complete before the end of the year, she said.
This October, interested participants will be asked to complete a pre-application, sharing their initial interest and research proposal. This pre-application, as well as license fees and rules and regulations, will be posted under the Industrial Hemp tab on the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s website at www.agriculture.ks.gov/
Applicants will need to state whether they intend to grow, process or distribute industrial hemp, provide maps identifying the locations of all properties involved, sign an acknowledgement of restrictions, and submit to and pass a state and national criminal history check.
“A lot of paperwork goes with this,” Ladner said. “It’s very important when applying that you keep a paper trail.”
Applications for growers, processors and distributors will be accepted until March 1, 2019, for the 2019 growing season.
Licensed growers are required to submit field planting reports within 15 days after planting, pre-harvest reports at least 30 days prior to intended harvest dates, and production reports within 30 days of the last harvest date. The information will be invaluable for assessing environmental impacts and planting techniques on different varieties of certified seed.
“We’re excited about industrial hemp growing in Kansas,” Ladner said. “This is a brand new adventure for Kansas. We want to work with growers. We want to know what works, what doesn’t, where it grows best, and what economic benefits it offers for the state of Kansas. We cannot grow the Kansas economy in the industrial hemp world without knowing something about it collectively. We want to share with everybody what we’ve learned. As Rod said, there are no secrets.”